Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

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Could both LaHair and Rizzo find way into Cubs lineup?

The Cubs enter 2012 as an afterthought in the NL Central race after cutting ties with Carlos Pena and Aramis Ramirez who combined for 54 home runs and 173 RBIs last season. Those departures have some in Cubs Nation fearing that the Cubs will be completely devoid of power and have a very tough time scoring runs.

However, some of the newcomers in spring training like Bryan LaHair, Brett Jackson, and Anthony Rizzo can help to make up for that power outage and that combined with better starting pitching, improved defense, and better fundamental play can lead to a better on field performance.

The Cubs may see that Alfonso Sorianos below average defense in left field is greatly affecting their pitching staff and the Cubs' chances for victory. That could open up a scenario that if LaHair and Rizzo both get off to good starts the Cubs could move one to the outfield (most likely LaHair) to take advantage of improved defense and left-handed power.

Both LaHair and Rizzo have tremendous power but neither has ever proven that they can succeed at the major league level. Can either one be the long-term answer at first base? Can both succeed enough that one can make the move to the outfield to give the Cubs two young and left handed middle of the order hitters?

Rizzo has tremendous power and a great approach at the plate but it is his character and makeup that we are most impressed with, said Cubs GM Jed Hoyer. Rizzo was drafted by the Epstein-Hoyer-McLeod regime in Boston, acquired by Hoyer and McLeod from the Red Sox in the Adrian Gonzalez deal in San Diego, and then re-acquired from the Padres in a deal for pitcher Andrew Cashner.

It is great to know that I have people who are in the front office that are obviously in my corner. They believe in me and I am trying to do my very best to prove to them that they were right for believing in me, Rizzo said.

LaHair comes to camp knowing that he already has a job on the big league club after spending most of 2011 in Class AAA where he was named Minor League Player of the Year. He led the minors with 38 homers and set career marks in batting (.331), on-base percentage (.405) and slugging (.664) and was named Pacific Coast League MVP. He was only the seventh PCL player in the last 15 years to garner 300 total bases and his 76 extra-base hits were the most in the league since 2006.

So why do people doubt that he can be a productive major league player? Because he is 29-years-old and the list is extremely short of players that finally became big time major leaguers at such an advanced age. LaHair though believes he is ready for the opportunity. I am in great shape and I had a very good off season in winter ball in Venezuela (LaHair slugged an unheard of 15 HRs in the short winter league season) and I have prepared for this opportunity for my entire life. Now I have to go out and prove I can do the job, he said.

While Rizzo bides his time for a chance on the big league club he knows that LaHair is getting first shot to replace Pena. "Right now it's a concrete plan to just let Rizzo have another season in Triple A and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down and all that stuff," manager Dale Sveum said. "It's Bryan LaHair's job. It's not his to lose."

However, should Rizzo make it so difficult on the Cubs front office to keep him in Class AAA where he will begin the season then LaHair could make the move to the outfield. "Of course no one wants to play in the minor leagues, especially when you've had the taste of it," Rizzo said Tuesday at Fitch Park.

I can't control anything. I can go to the minors and do what Bryan did last year and still be there all season. I know that I can play up here but I will just continue working as hard as I can until I get my shot in the big leagues. I have never struggled like I did when I was called up in San Diego but I think that experience will help me when I do finally come up, he said before workouts on Tuesday morning in Mesa.

Whether it is one or both in the lineup in 2012 it does appear that the Cubs finally have some of the left-handed power that they have been searching for. In fact, the last legitimate left-handed run producer that the Cubs developed was probably Mark Grace and he left the organization after the 2000 season. Grace was a solid hitter but he never had a 100 RBI season or a 30 HR season so if you use those measuring sticks the last one that the Cubs had was Fred McGriff in 2002 when he had 30 HRs and 103 RBIs.

Balance in a lineup is essential for success and it appears that finally the Cubs have some power from the hard to find left side. The question is who will that be? LaHair or Rizzo? If both guys find their way into the lineup then the rebuild of Theo Epstein and Co. will go a whole lot quicker. That scenario would be just fine with both LaHair and Rizzo.

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras looks ready for prime time

SAN DIEGO – Within 24 hours at Petco Park, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras handled the wild movement of Jake Arrieta’s pitches and framed the edges of the strike zone for Kyle Hendricks, showing the dexterity to handle a playoff rotation.

Contreras looked ready for prime time on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, helping shut down the San Diego Padres and complete a three-game sweep where two National League Cy Young Award candidates found a rhythm while throwing to a rookie catcher.

“Everything’s a lot easier,” Contreras said after a 6-3 victory. “I’m way more comfortable right now, because my first week everything was speeding up on me. But now I’m able to slow down the game and do my job.” 

The day after Arrieta fell one inning short of a two-hit, complete-game shutout, Hendricks credited Contreras for calling more curveballs and getting him through a stretch where the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings. 

“From the get-go, I wasn’t shaking him off,” Hendricks said. “We’ve been rolling for the last five, six starts, at least. It’s been easy.” 

Contreras has now caught Arrieta twice, and got one-start exposure to Jon Lester, while developing chemistry with Hendricks, John Lackey and Jason Hammel, which means veteran catcher Miguel Montero might not have a spot on the postseason roster if this continues.

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Contreras is a dynamic presence, launching his eighth home run on Wednesday afternoon and keeping the Padres stationary after Tuesday night’s laser throw to pick off a runner at third base. 

“I was waiting for somebody to run,” Contreras said. “But they didn’t run, so I’ll have to save it for another game.”

The Cubs are nearing the point where a 24-year-old player who didn’t make his big-league debut until June 17 could be behind the plate for the biggest games in franchise history.

“In this clubhouse, we are like a family,” Contreras said. “Once you get here, you start feeling comfortable the first day. You don’t even know that you are a rookie who just came up.”

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

Kyle Hendricks keeps rolling as Cubs sweep away Padres

SAN DIEGO – Kyle Hendricks reported to spring training as a fifth starter, leads the majors in ERA in late August and could pitch Game 1 in a playoff series. That gradual evolution from possible question mark at the back of the rotation into a National League Cy Young Award candidate highlights how the Cubs have transformed from a team that won the offseason to one that owns the summer and maybe this fall. 

In his own understated way, Hendricks smashed any perceptions of that ceiling, performing at a level and with a consistency that matches the franchise’s young hitting stars, mirroring their baseball IQ and grounded nature, without the billboards and flair for social media. 

Hendricks kept rolling on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon at Petco Park, knocking the San Diego Padres off-balance and finishing the three-game sweep with a 6-3 victory. That pushed the Cubs to 36 games over .500 for the first time since finishing their 1945 pennant-winning season at 98-56. The best team in baseball could play a little over .500 (19-17) down the stretch and still reach 100 wins.

A Dartmouth College graduate with an Ivy League degree in economics helped create all this momentum – and certainly knows what he wants to do on the mound – but Hendricks as an ace still seems beyond the wildest internal preseason projection.

“I thought he ended really well last year and that there was a lot to look forward to,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s just taken it to another level right now. He’s in that 26-27-year-old range where a young pitcher who’s had some major-league experience can really find his next level. And I think that’s what’s going on. He’s such a wonderful student. The difference between last year and this year is the confidence thing: ‘I belong here. I can do this. I’m one of the best.’ 

“A lot of our guys are going through that moment right now. And I think that’s what you’re seeing out of Kyle. I’ve talked about the couple tweaks he’s made regarding the four-seam fastball and curveball usage. That makes him a little bit different. But more than anything, I think he believes he’s among the best right now.”

The Padres (53-74) looked a little checked out and didn’t really put much pressure on a Cubs team that should get an adrenaline boost this weekend at Dodger Stadium. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant opened the game with back-to-back doubles before Ben Zobrist lined a two-run triple into the right-center field gap. Within six minutes of Paul Clemens’ first pitch, Jorge Soler’s sacrifice fly made it 3-0.

Hendricks hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a start since May 17, a run of 17 straight outings that has sliced his ERA from 3.51 to 2.19 while pushing his record to 12-7.

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Hendricks hides his emotions and didn’t get flustered when the Padres put the leadoff man on base in each of the first four innings, working around the traffic to limit San Diego to two runs and finish with eight strikeouts. 

Hendricks made it through six innings – he’s now gone at least five in each of his 24 starts this year – after beginning the day with a FanGraphs soft-hit rate (26 percent of batted balls) that led the majors and would be the highest mark in the last five seasons.

Hendricks has to pitch a different game than Jake Arrieta, but with an 8-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in his last 13 starts, he might be this year’s breakthrough performer who helps carry the Cubs into October.

“I’m just trying to stay where I’m at and keep the consistency,” Hendricks said. “Keep my pitches feeling good, keep my command. It’s just staying in my routine and really not doing too much – not doing less – just kind of riding it out until I feel something change.”

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

How soon before Cubs make Javier Baez an everyday player?

SAN DIEGO — The airtight defensive alignment for October would have to include Javier Baez, a game-changing force moving in all directions. The Cubs have seen Baez make barehanded plays and laser throws, take charge on bunts and frustrate hitters with an uncanny ability to improvise and make split-second decisions.

Baez and Addison Russell are two of the best athletes in the entire game, Jake Arrieta said after Tuesday night’s win over the San Diego Padres, so put the ball in play and let those two middle infielders take over.

There could be playoff lineups where Baez starts at second base and bumps Ben Zobrist to the outfield. But manager Joe Maddon isn’t about to hand Baez an everyday job, sticking with the super-utility formula and versatile philosophy that’s helped the Cubs become the best team in baseball.

“It depends on how we morph as a group over the next couple years,” Maddon said Wednesday at Petco Park. “Right now, I like the way it’s working out. I like the fact that (Javy’s) getting rested (and) not playing every day. Look at his at-bats — they have gotten better, too. He is making adjustments or adaptations during the at-bat. He’s not just out of control every swing.”

Baez has channeled his aggressiveness, hitting .276 with 13 homers, 47 RBIs and 83 strikeouts through 343 plate appearances, becoming a more mature and well-rounded player at the age of 23.

“You’re seeing a lot of progress,” Maddon said. “Who knows if by playing sporadically this is becoming more part of who he is? As opposed to playing every day, maybe getting caught in the trap of not hitting well, whatever, and all of a sudden he takes it on defense. It’s natural progression. He’s an everyday player, there’s no question, in maybe a couple years.”

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The Geek Department and scouting reports will ultimately influence where Baez plays, because Maddon wants him wherever the ball will most likely be hit most often. When Jon Lester pitches, that can mean Baez starting at third base and Kris Bryant moving to the outfield.

The Cubs promised Zobrist the second-base job when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract, agreeing the focus on one position would help reduce the wear and tear on his body at the age of 35. The Cubs still need Zobrist’s switch-hitting skills and World Series experience in the lineup.

Maddon also wants to keep Jorge Soler involved — because he’s a presence other teams have to account for — and maybe that will mean sacrificing Jason Heyward’s Gold Glove defense in right field at times.

But Baez is the type of defender the Cubs will want to see out there in one-run, low-scoring playoff games.

“He’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “Any ball hit his way — whether it’s in the air, on the ground, on line — you kind of just expect him to make the play and make it look good. That’s what he’s been doing all year. I certainly think he’s Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over. I feel like there should be a utility man Gold Glove, because he definitely (deserves it).”